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OPINION

A GOP unity cruise hits the Great Trump-Barrier Reef

Not even a nifty new award can keep the bitter former president at intra-party bay.

Then-President Donald Trump speaks to the media with Florida Gov. Rick Scott at Eglin Air Force Base  in Fla. in 2018.
Then-President Donald Trump speaks to the media with Florida Gov. Rick Scott at Eglin Air Force Base in Fla. in 2018.Evan Vucci

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, that old political consultant Robert Burns once observed — and so the Republican Party has found as it tries to regroup after Donald Trump’s November election loss and January insurrection.

This past weekend, the Republican National Committee gathered its big donors in Florida for a confab meant to chart a unified course toward future electoral glory. Alas, that metaphorical unity cruise ran aground on a treacherous obstacle that lurks there in Palm Beach: The Great Trump-Barrier Reef.

At a closed door Mar-a-Lago dinner session, the former president reportedly laced into Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell as a “stone-cold loser” and a “dumb son of a bitch.” He blasted Elaine Chao, his former secretary of transportation (and McConnell’s wife), for resigning in protest after he instigated the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. And he had critical words for his own former vice president, Mike Pence, for refusing to trample on the Constitution, as he had urged, by trying to reject the Electoral College results.

Why, that billingsgate seemed to come as an unpleasant shock even to Newt Gingrich, hardly an enemy of character assassination. “We are much better off if we keep focusing on the Democrats,” said he.

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So how does a party deal with Trump’s derangement syndrome? That is, the faux populist president’s desire to avenge himself on his critics in the GOP’s governing wing?

We got a clue Tuesday from Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the newly elected chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the organization charged with electing and reelecting Republicans to the nation’s broken upper legislative chamber.

Grin wanly and bear it.

Interviewed by Jacqueline Alemany on The Washington Post’s live programming platform, Scott noted that as part of the GOP gathering, he had presented Trump with the committee’s newly minted “Champion for Freedom Award.” Now, one wise in the humorous hazards of unintentional irony might note that this is not the most apt laurel to set upon the brow of a man who recently tried to overturn a free and fair election. But let’s not quibble over nomenclature. Not when Alemany had more pressing questions about that apparent effort to placate Trump and thus keep him inside the GOP tent hissing out.

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Did he regret having bestowed the honor, given Trump’s Saturday slamming of McConnell, she inquired?

Well, Scott noted, he had presented Trump with the spiffy new award on Friday. That is, pre-attack.

Would he have withheld the award, Alemany persisted, if it had been scheduled for Sunday (that is, post-attack) presentation?

By this point, the practiced, all-weather, everything’s-fine smile that adorned the senatorial visage seemed in danger of drooping into a look of uh-oh-I-fear-I’m-making-a-fool-of-myself frustration.

“Who knows?” Scott replied. “That’s a hypothetical.” Questions that require that complex level of ratiocination, one must understand, are beyond mere mortals. But Scott’s own goal was to bring people together, he emphasized, adding that he thought party panjandrums should stay neutral in primaries and then rally around whomever voters choose. Noting that the (fuming) former president is threatening to organize primary challenges to his various GOP critics, Alemany asked how Trump responded to Scott’s stay-on-the-sidelines urgings.

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“If I give advice to somebody, I don’t expect them to necessarily take it,” Scott replied.

Ah, the wisdom of low expectations.

And so it goes in the GOP’s hostage situation. Trump wouldn’t win the presidency again and is unlikely to try. After all, Jan. 6 is a day that won’t be quickly or easily forgotten. Or airbrushed from American history. Questions about it will persist, as they should.

Republicans who speak the truth about Trump will earn his ire and that of his loyal voters and thus face a headwind in Republican primary contests. Trump acolytes and enablers, on the other hand, may fare well with the populist grassroots, but will have an orange general-election albatross around their necks in many states.

It’s quite the dilemma — and the only surefire advice, sadly, tends toward the tactical: In the era of Trump, best to hold the awards presentation until the very end of the weekend.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.